However, there’s plenty of scientific evidence that ties strength training and maintaining muscle mass to longevity. And with more women lifting weights to build muscle, boost confidence, and reap serious mental health benefits, know that you’re not alone. The good news is that building an effective strength training plan that makes you look like a pro in the gym is easier than you think.
Use these six expert-backed weightlifting exercises to build muscle and confidence in the gym, even if you’ve never touched a kettlebell before.
5 weight lifting exercises for beginners
Grab a mat for this exercise from certified trainer Caroline Saunders, CPT, which targets your core and helps build the mind-body connection.
How to: Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90-degree angles, legs lifted, and shins parallel to the floor. Reach toward the ceiling with straight arms—start with bodyweight, then work your way up to holding a dumbbell in each hand as you get stronger.
To begin, breathe in deeply. As you exhale, extend your right arm over your head toward the floor until your bicep aligns with your ear. At the same time, straighten and lower your left leg toward the floor, keeping your foot flexed and squeezing your quad. Inhale as you return to the starting position. Repeat the same movement on the other side. Be sure to keep your black flat on the floor for the duration of the exercise and to engage your core.
Do: three sets of five reps per side.
Squats are a fundamental lower body exercise that involves bending at your knees and hips to lower your body closer to the ground while keeping a neutral spine and proud chest, according to Molly Ertel, lead trainer at DogPound in New York City.
This is a compound move, which means it recruits several different muscle groups: your quadriceps (the front of your thighs), hamstrings (the back of your thighs), and glutes (your butt). “You’ll also activate your calves and core, especially when you add weight to the exercise,” says Ertel.
The quads, hammies, and glutes are the largest muscle groups in your lower body, so squats offer a lot of bang for your buck.
How to: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes slightly turned out or straight forward (try both stances and stick with whichever position feels most natural to you). Keep your knees pressed out in line with your second and third toes as you send your hips behind your heels and begin to lower your butt toward the floor with the goal being to get your thighs parallel to the ground and knees bent 90 degrees or as far as your mobility allows.
As you squat, keep your chest upright and spine neutral—so don’t overarch or tuck your tailbone under. “Especially for taller folks, it is okay to let your knees travel over your toes as long as you don’t experience pain when doing so,” notes Ertel.
Do: Start with three to four sets of eight to 10 reps. You can begin with body weight, and as you feel more comfortable with the motion, add a dumbbell in each hand.
3. Reverse lunge
This lower body exercise isolates one leg at a time to challenge your balance and target your quads and glutes.
How to: Keep your hands on your hips or hold a light dumbbell (eight to 12 pounds to start) in each hand. Step your right foot backward, then bend both knees to 90 degrees at the same time—the back heel stays elevated. “Ensure that your forward knee stays over your shoelaces,” says Saunders. Pause for a second at the bottom, then step your right foot back in line with your left to stand up straight for one rep. You can repeat the exercise on the same side or alternate sides by stepping your left foot back next. Focus on maintaining your balance and not swaying from side to side as you lunge.
Do: three sets of eight to 10 reps per side.
4. Overhead press
This is an upper-body exercise that works your pectorals (chest muscles), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of the upper arms), and trapezius (muscles that connect your neck and tops of shoulders). Saunders recommends this to beginner clients, as it’s especially beneficial for your posture.
Description: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. You can start without weights, use a resistance band (as demo’d in the video above), or hold a light dumbbell (five to eight pounds) in each hand—as you get stronger, you can start adding more weight. Start holding your weights or fists in front of your shoulders with your palms facing each other. Extend your arms straight up toward the ceiling, rotating your palms to face forward and bringing your biceps by your ears. As you straighten your arms, engage your core and tuck your pelvis to stabilize your spine and prevent your back from arching.
If you’re having trouble keeping your spine neutral as you straighten your arms, decrease the weight or start the exercise by sitting on a bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Then you can work up to standing.
Do: three sets of eight to 10 reps.
5. Bent-over row
“Rowing exercises strengthen your back muscles,” says Saunders, “which are responsible for helping you stand tall.” A single-arm dumbbell row can help combat the poor posture that many of us develop by looking down at screens.
How to: First, stand alongside a bench or box that’s about knee-high. Place your right hand and your right knee on the bench, keeping a flat back parallel to the bench. Keep your right hand under your shoulder and your knee directly under your hip for stability. Placed your left foot on the floor for support.
Start holding a five to 10-pound dumbbell in each hand with your feet hip-width apart. Hinge forward sending your hips behind your heels and softly bending your knees. (Torso can be tilted at 45 degrees or parallel to the floor.) Extend your arms down to the floor, palms facing each other. Pull your elbow straight back behind you narrow by your sides until your hands frame your ribcage, squeezing your shoulder blades towards your spine and away from your ears. Slowly lower your arms until they are fully extended to complete the rep.
Saunders advises her clients to keep their chin down while rowing, which “creates a neutral spine and negates strain in their neck.”
Do: three sets of 10 reps per side.
How much weight should I start with?
You can start each of these exercises using just your body weight. When you feel ready to add some external pounds, Saunders says to start with a light to moderate dumbbell, something that doesn’t start to feel heavy until your last two or three reps. “Then, if you can complete five to 10 reps above your target rep count, you’re ready to increase the weight again,” she says.
Just be sure to slowly add weight in increments of 5 to 10 pounds to reduce the risk of injury.
How often should I strength train when I’m first starting?
As with most forms of exercise, consistency is key with weightlifting. Ertel recommends “aiming for two to three training sessions per week that last about 45 minutes to an hour, including a warm-up.”
However, the best exercise plan is one that you can follow. So it’s better to start slow and increase your time in the weight room as you gain strength and comfort. “People who are consistent with the basics tend to be more successful than people who have an elaborate plan that completely interrupts their typical schedule,” Ertel says.
She also notes that it’s important to listen to your body and allow for adequate rest and recovery between sessions. This gives your growing muscles a chance to develop and recover before you stress them again.
Tips for building confidence in the weight room
Ertel’s number one tip for overcoming imposter syndrome at the gym is to go in with a plan, such as the exercises mentioned here. “Having a training plan provides a sense of purpose that can help quiet the uncomfortable feelings of a new environment.” You can stick to the exercise and equipment that you came to the gym for, instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the options or distracted by what others are doing.
Your gym might be downright huge, with seemingly endless rows of machines and free weights. Saunders recommends sticking to one area, which can help make things feel more manageable.
Also, “many gyms have trainers walking the floor when they’re not training clients who will happily give feedback on your form. Of course, if someone tries to give you unsolicited feedback or advice it’s completely okay to say ‘no thank you.’”
You may also want to bring a buddy. “Even if you aren’t doing the same exercises, having a friend for moral support can be rewarding and make weightlifting more fun.”
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